A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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I was raised in the Jewish faith, which provides structured guidelines for the grieving process. If you follow them, if you grieve well, you will make it through. The formal mourning period lasts twelve months, after which it is time to move on, get back to the world, and fully inhabit your life again. But ten months in I couldn’t even inhabit my house. I still felt adrift in the waters of grief, clinging to the rudderless dinghy of my bed, with no land in sight.
During those ten months friends had suggested the following:
I should post affirmations in places where I will see them daily, like the bathroom mirror, so that even if I don’t believe their messages — I am happy! I am whole! I am loved! — they will slowly reprogram my subconscious.
I should pay thousands of dollars to sit cross-legged with other shattered people at a retreat center founded by a new-age guru.
I should take a shaman-directed hallucinogenic trip so that Grandmother Spirit can tell me everything I need to know to achieve self-actualization.
And, my personal favorite, that I should just get over it.
I wanted to get over it — more than I have ever wanted anything — but I couldn’t remember my life before the loss or imagine a future big enough to accommodate it.
Until this point my worst blue moods had compelled me to stay in bed for periods of days, during which I would lie there and feel sorry for myself. If I gave the dark humors reign over my body and mind — if I allowed them to make me feel, completely and fully, however they needed me to feel — they would pass.
But suicidal depression, I discovered, cannot be resolved by plunging headlong into it. The more you let in the depression, the more of you it infects. And it doesn’t end with your own problems or self-judgment; it corrodes your perception of the world, a place that has become so terrible, you see no incentive to return to it.
I am the daughter of two psychologists who often talked shop around the house when I was growing up. Suicide rates and risks were considered reasonable dinner conversation. I remember hearing that women most often took pills or slit their wrists and rarely succeeded in killing themselves. These were “cry for help” suicides. The men were more successful by far, because they went with more-violent means, such as blowing their brains out, which works almost every time. (There was one case in the literature of a man who’d shot himself in the head: he hadn’t died, but it had cured his OCD.)
I wasn’t interested in a “cry for help.”
I have heard it said that most people die as they have lived. Judging by my sample group of one (me), I can also say that people plan their suicides as they have lived. Even though I was too depressed to read a book or watch a movie, I was going to have the most well-researched, most thoughtful suicide of all time.
A gun seemed like the surest bet, but I had two concerns:
1. I didn’t want my parents to see me with half a head, so I would have to do it far out in the woods where some animal could eat me and no one would ever find my body. I would send a letter to my parents telling them I was gone and not to look for me, and I would try to make the letter beautiful so they would know that I loved them most of all and that this was not their fault and that I wanted them to be happy and not let this ruin their lives.
This part has a subsection, 1a., which is that I’d heard there is a problem with vultures dying of lead poisoning from eating the carrion that hunters leave behind. So I would have to find nonlead bullets.
2. I believe in nonviolence, and shooting myself seemed like a very violent — perhaps the most violent — way to leave the earth. I wondered whether one’s manner of death needs to align with the principles one held in life, or if when your life is awful enough that you choose to end it, all bets are off.
Unsure, I went back to searching Google for images of the radial artery to find out where it passes through the wrist. It turned out that the ganglion cyst on my left wrist is directly over the artery, making it difficult to access. There was the option of severing the right radial artery, but that would mean I’d have to use my left hand to hold the blade, and I can’t even draw a straight line with my left hand. This was a problem.
Maybe pills instead? I looked to see if it was possible to buy black-market Seconal online. To keep the Seconals down, you have to take an antiemetic first, which I happened to have on hand for migraines. Then you empty a hundred red capsules into some liquid, and off you go — peaceful, no anxiety, and no hopelessness tomorrow when you count up the days, the weeks, the months of your despair.
One morning, while writing a goodbye letter, I got a voice mail from a dear friend who’d had a baby three weeks earlier. It said, “I haven’t heard from you in a few days, and I’m getting concerned. I know how awful you feel. Please reach out. I’m here. Please call me.” Something about her plea got to me — that she would take time away from her newborn to throw me a line.
Before dialing her number, I steeled myself and practiced sounding cheerful. When she answered the phone, I erupted into heaving sobs, unable even to say hello or identify myself.
She said, “It’s going to take me a little bit to pack up the baby, but I will be over as soon as I can. Don’t go anywhere,” and she hung up.
I was hysterical when she arrived with her sleeping infant. She put him down in his car seat at the foot of my bed and climbed in with me.
“What about the baby?” was all I could muster.
“He’s fine.” She held me tight. “Don’t worry.” And she didn’t let me go until my sobbing had faded to quick, soft gulps of air.
She has lost more than most, my friend. “I am going to tell you something now that you aren’t going to like,” she said, propping herself up on pillows. “Nothing is going to come along to fix this for you.” She told me I would have to make a choice. It would be the hardest thing I had ever done or would ever do, but I needed only to take the first step. “Every morning after you wake up, you need to go into the living room and open the curtains.” I could get right back into bed, she said, but I had to open the curtains every morning. For a while, if I did nothing but open the curtains, we would call that a victory. “Can you do that?” she asked.
I told her I could.
The next morning I walked the fourteen steps from my bed to the picture window in my living room, pulled open the curtains, and walked the fourteen steps back to my bed, where I remained for the rest of the day. Before I went to sleep that night, I walked the fourteen steps back to the living room to close the curtains. I am not sure why I didn’t just leave them open to save myself the hassle the next morning, except that I generally do what I’m told, and since I knew I had to open them again the next day, that meant I had to close them at night.
This went on for a few days: wake up, fourteen steps, open the curtains, fourteen steps, cry and plan my death, fourteen steps, close the curtains, fourteen steps, go to sleep. The only thing that changed throughout the day was the raking beam of sun that slid underneath the bedroom door from the living room.
On the fourth morning I stopped at the couch on my way back to bed and sat down for a few minutes. OK, the couch. You remember the couch. You used to sit here all the time. What did you do on the couch? You used to check e-mails and plan your to-do list. Both were now far too overwhelming. I settled for checking that my daily planner was where I’d left it. The next day I made myself a cup of tea, something else I’d once done every day. I was playacting, the way a toddler pretends to be a parent when you put a cellphone in her hand, loudly barking into the receiver, “Hello, how are you, I am fine thank you, I am very busy at work right now, why don’t you e-mail me later and we can go play!” The only difference is that I was pretending to be myself.
My dad called and suggested I start taking short walks around the block, which seemed impossible, my body weak from not having walked more than fourteen consecutive steps or slept more than a few consecutive hours or eaten a full meal in months. As an additional excuse, I told him that walking by myself had always brought on a sharp twinge of loneliness, so it would probably make me feel worse. He couldn’t go for a walk with me because he lived too far away, but the next morning he called again and said we could walk together over the phone: “We don’t have to go far.” Stripped of my excuses, I grudgingly put on shoes and went to the door. We walked for as long as I could put one foot in front of the other, which was about ten minutes. We did this every morning for three weeks. It was molting season: I remember because I came back to the house every morning with a fistful of iridescent crow feathers that glinted in the sun — enough, after a while, to outfit a Goth showgirl.
Eventually I set out on my own, without my father’s voice for company, walking to a six-acre Catholic retreat center ten blocks from my house — a distance that would have been unthinkable a few weeks earlier. There, a footpath meanders through a dense canopy of old-growth trees, punctuated by bas-relief sculptures depicting the stations of the cross. A side trail leads to a statue of Mary beside a stone grotto. She has lost her right hand at the wrist, which made her somehow more approachable, easier to talk to. She was broken like me.
I asked her for many things — big things. I needed the world to change overnight. I needed to be all better now, to feel happy! whole! loved! I was tired of carrying the fifty-pound weight on my sternum that prevented me from taking a full breath. I couldn’t bear another day of grief. I wanted proof that I was moving forward.
One particular morning the footpath was strewn with pine needles, cones, and fallen branches — the aftermath of an epic windstorm the previous evening. I paid little attention to the detritus, stepping absentmindedly over huge, forked limbs that had once offered shade. At the opposite end of the property a hunched silhouette holding a cane stood in the middle of the path. As I approached, I saw it was an old man in suspenders and work pants, and the cane was actually a broom. He moved tentatively, unsteadily, his balance so precarious that turning his head to return my greeting almost toppled him. He took a moment to stabilize himself and told me he was one of the priests there. “It’s nice to meet you, Father,” I said, wondering if he could sense my otherness; if he could tell that a Jew had been whispering all her secrets to his beloved Mary; that, while walking the stations every day, I had only ever thought of the cross I had to bear. I wondered if he could sense my despair.
“Welcome,” he said. “We love having our neighbors here. Please feel at home.” He put his hand on my shoulder, steadying us both.
As soon as we had said our goodbyes, he resumed sweeping the walkway, his feet slightly apart for balance, arms slowly pulling the broom across his body. I watched him from a short distance: After five or six strokes he shuffled his left foot forward a few inches, then the right. The hard part, it seemed, was having to take his weight off the broom so that he could advance it forward with his feet. He repeated this process a few times and then rested on a bench. While sitting, he continued to sweep the ground in front of him. Sweep, rest, sweep, rest. In the thirty minutes that I observed him, he cleared an area no more than ten feet by five feet.
Nearly a year later I still walk at the retreat center every day. I am up to thirty miles a week. I no longer ask Mary to change the world overnight or to erase the uncertainty in my future. I watch the squirrels play in the dappled sunlight and the swallowtail butterflies hover weightless above the rhododendron before flitting off.
We often experience big, showy displays of progress — a better salary, a larger house, a brighter future. But sometimes our progress is humbled by age or grief or circumstance. Sometimes forward movement can be measured only by how many needles you can sweep from the area in front of your feet; by how many crow feathers you can find within a four-block radius of your house; by how many steps it takes to get to the living-room curtains.
It’s rare that I come away from an issue of The Sun not moved in some unexpected way. In recent months you featured two very different essays about depression: Stephen Elliott’s “Sometimes I Think about Suicide” and Jennifer Rabin’s “Fourteen Steps.” Depression touches the lives of many every day, and as both writers can attest, its terrain is unnavigable at times. I applaud you for delving into this landscape.
Despite complaints from readers about Stephen Elliott’s essay “Sometimes I Think about Suicide” [November 2016], you printed another essay about suicide in your February 2017 issue: “Fourteen Steps,” by Jennifer Rabin.
I am glad you chose not to shy away from a topic that makes many uncomfortable. At several points in my life I have thought about committing suicide, not because I was selfish or feeling sorry for myself, but because I was having trouble finding a way out of my desperation. That neither Elliott nor Rabin killed themselves is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.